Of Mice and Men Summary and Analysis

Chapter Three

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Summary

Chapter Three opens on the next day. After working hours, as the other men play horseshoes outside, Slim and George return to the bunk house. We learn that Slim has allowed Lennie to have one of his puppies. Slim praises Lennie for his incredible work ethic, which leads George to talk about his past with Lennie. The two grew up as neighbors and George took Lennie as a travel and work companion when Lennie's Aunt Clara died. George says that when he first began traveling with Lennie he found it funny to play pranks on him. One day he ordered Lennie to jump in a river even though he couldn't swim and Lennie unthinkingly obeyed. After George fished him out, Lennie was completely grateful, having forgotten that George had ordered him into the river in the first place. After this episode, George decided against having fun at Lennie's expense.

At Slim's insistence, George tells about the episode in Weed that led them to seek work elsewhere. Lennie saw a woman in a red dress and, overcome by an urge to feel the pretty fabric, he stupidly grabbed the woman. The woman fled and told the men of Weed that Lennie had raped her. George and Lennie were forced to hide from a lynch mob and sneak out of Weed under cover of night.

Lennie appears with his new puppy and George tells him to take the puppy back to its mother for its own safety. After Lennie leaves, the men come in from their horseshoe game, which Crooks has apparently won. Carlson begins complaining again about the smell of Candy's old dog. He goads Candy to shoot the dog, which Candy refuses to do. Carlson then offers to shoot the dog himself. After Slim speaks up in favor of shooting the dog, Candy reluctantly allows Carlson to take the dog outside with his Luger and a shovel. Candy sinks into a deep melancholy and the men try to lighten the atmosphere with talk of cards and magazine articles. Just as they begin a game of euchre, a shot rings out in the night.

Crooks enters and talks with Slim about fixing a mule's hoof. He also mentions that Lennie is playing with the pups in the barn. Slim leaves for the barn as George and Whit begin a conversation about women. Whit mentions that the men usually go to a whorehouse or two on the weekend and they welcome George to come along. Whit also laughs about Curley's trouble keeping tabs on his wife, who appears eager to spend time with every man on the ranch aside from her husband. On cue, Curley bursts in to the bunkhouse and demands to know the whereabouts of his wife and Slim. After he learns that Slim is in the barn he leaves. Lennie, at the same time, returns from the barn, having been told to stop playing with the pups for the night.

As they wind down for the evening, Lennie asks George to tell him "about the rabbits," and George launches into his monologue about their proposed self-sustaining farm - complete with rabbits, pigs, cats and a vegetable garden. Candy, who has been listening in, asks how much such a place would cost. George, though put off at first by Candy's nosiness, eventually lets on that he has a lead on a plot of land that could be bought for six hundred dollars. Candy reveals that he has a secret stash of money - three-hundred and fifty dollars - and offers to give it all to George and Lennie if they'll let him live on their farm and work as a housekeeper. After a quick calculation George figures that they could make a down payment on the property after only a month's work. The three men sit, enraptured and astounded that their dream of a self-sufficient farm life might actually become a reality.

Curley returns with Whit, Carlson and Slim. Curley has accused Slim of eying his wife, a charge which Slim and the others laugh off. Lennie, who is still dreaming about the rabbits, also smiles, which leads Curley to confront him aggressively. Curley punches Lennie in the face. Lennie does not immediately fight back, instead crying and calling to George for help. When Curley doesn't back off, George tells Lennie to "get 'em." Lennie catches Curley's next punch in his massive paw and crushes down on his hand. George tells Lennie to let go, but Lennie only grips harder out of fear. Curley flops like a fish. By the time Lennie finally relaxes his grip, Curley's hand has been ruined. Before Curley goes to the hospital, he agrees to pretend that he has caught his hand in a machine. Lennie is afraid that he has done something bad, but George reassures him that he hasn't as the chapter closes.

Analysis

Once again, every visible action in this chapter takes place in the bunk house as characters make their exits and entrances. Steinbeck carefully controls the events, weaving even the smallest detail into a rich whole. The atmosphere remains gloomy as the action progresses from the account of Lennie and George's near-lynching, to the shooting of Candy's dog, to the fight between Curley and Lennie - with one exceptional spot of light, George's monologue "about the rabbits" and Candy's offer to finance their dream.

To take these events as they occur, the near-lynching in Weed provides another instance of the danger of women. Again, Steinbeck gives voice to attitudes that are sexist at best. He already showed Curley's wife acting just as desperately vampy as her reputation; here he piles on examples of the danger and misunderstanding that comes from sex. The woman in the red dress in Weed (whose pretty dress "provokes" Lennie into action) clearly resembles Curley's garishly attired wife. And George tells of another man, Andy Cushman, who landed in the San Quention penitentiary after succumbing to "a tart" (62). Women equal danger in Steinbeck's masculine dramatic world.

The only good women, George suggests (61), are those whose sexual motives one knows - either because they are totally desexualized, like Lennie's Aunt Clara, or completely sexualized, like the whores at Susy's and Clara's. Indeed, Steinbeck's double use of the name "Clara" (which means "clear," suggesting that the social and sexual roles of these two women are transparent) links the one model of womanhood - motherliness - with its opposite - whoredom. Figures like the woman in the red dress, or Curley's wife, who seem to exist between these two extremes, at once off-limits and up-for-grabs, are presented as dangerous, especially for a man as sexually innocent yet powerful as Lennie. He is as dangerous to them as they are to him - they are like the pet mice and rabbits that Lennie loves literally to death, soft and easily crushed. (Steinbeck heightens the association between the women and the small cuddly creatures at several points, for instance when he writes that the woman in the red dress "rabbit[ed]" to the lawmen with her accusation of Lennie (46).) Readers can certainly take issue with Steinbeck's depiction of women, but their role in the work as kindling for trouble seems quite clear.

The shooting of Candy's dog draws a parallel between the old swamper and George and Lennie. Indeed, Candy and his dog come off as an "old timer" version of the younger duo. Just as Lennie is an incredible worker, so too Candy's dog was once "the best damn sheep dog I ever saw" (49). And just as the other men cannot understand the bond that keeps an apparently hale and clever man like George yoked to the burdensome, infantile Lennie, so too the men cannot understand Candy's sentimental companionship with his now-decrepit and stinking dog. Steinbeck strengthens their parallel bonds of companionship with continued associations of Lennie and dogs - he is absolutely attached to his puppy; he obeys George's commands unthinkingly, as a dog obeys an owner; and George's commands often directly resemble commands one gives a dog, such as when he sics George on Curley.

Candy thus emerges as the only character in the bunk house who has something approaching George and Lennie's preference for social (and perhaps socialist) companionship over isolated individualism. Their thematic link makes his eagerness to join George and Lennie in their farm life natural and understandable. Candy, unlike the others, displays an interest in others and hope for the future. His sympathetic nature comes through even in his decision to allow his dog's death. Candy only relents to their request to put the dog out of its misery when they frame the argument in terms of the dog's suffering, and even this request is not granted easily.

Yet Candy does finally relent to the men, for despite his similarities to George and Lennie, Candy is an inherently passive character. He relents to others' decisions easily, incapable of fully standing up for his own beliefs. He allows another man to shoot his dog, despite his repeated insistence that he wants to keep the old hound. (The shooting of the dog in the back of the head, a supposedly painless maneuver, foreshadows later events in the story.)

The tragic fate of Candy's dog reminds us that the rest of the bunk house society - including even Slim - cannot understand or tolerate sentimental attachment to a weak creature. This is no world for Candy's dog, and it appears to be no world for Lennie either. Steinbeck even subtly suggests that their now-realistic dream of co-owning a plot of land might also be too dreamy for the hard truths of the world. When Candy decides to collaborate with them and the idea of owning a farm becomes tangible, none of the men know how to respond. For George and Lennie their dream serves as a diversion from the travails of everyday life and not as a realistic goal.

To turn to the final episode in the chapter, the fight between Lennie and Curley, we see first-hand that there is a deep and ruthless capacity for violence in the generally docile Lennie. This violence is sometimes casual and inadvertent - as in his accidental killing of the mice in his pockets - and sometimes an explosion of directed rage, as when he crushes Curley's hand. Lennie seems willing to kill to protect the things he loves, whether George or the rabbits or what have you. His violence is child-like - or dog-like: the sudden ferocity of an otherwise affectionate pet. His casual declaration that he will snap the necks of any cats who attempt to kill the rabbits on his fantasy farm is shocking - we know that he means exactly what he says.

When George gives him permission to fight back against Curley, Lennie cannot control his capacity for violence. He only stops crushing Curley's hand when George issues a direct order - leading one to wonder how he would behave in a similar situation is George were not there to control him. The fight between Curley and Lennie fulfills the foreshadowed confrontation between the two characters, but it does not resolve the situation. We know Curley well enough to sense that his spoken resolution to pretend the incident didn't happen - to pretend he caught his hand in "a machine" - rings hollow.

By the way, Lennie's crushing of Curley's hand - an unusual form of fighting, to say the least - is highly significant. We've already seen how Curley's hand is associated with his sexuality - he keeps one hand soft for his wife. Thus the injury he sustains resonates with his (already uneasy) sense of sexual prowess. Lennie has, metaphorically at least, crushed more than the man's hand - he has also crushed his very manhood. Lennie cannot understand the significance of this gesture, but the others - or, at least, the reader - can. Lennie has unwittingly unmanned his rival and indirectly revealed his superior physical (and sexual) prowess. Thus Steinbeck lays the foundation for a conflict that directly links Lennie, Curley, and Curley's sexual object, his wife.